GTA IV is not
“the perfect game”, no matter how many reviews would have you believe that. It’s no more a “perfect game” than The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time or Super Mario 64 were “perfect games”. That said, the games industry still considers both the aforementioned as pinnacles in design and direction; games that ultimately shaped
the 3D videogaming landscape as we know it today. With this in mind, the word “perfect”, as may have been touted when they were released all those years ago (Mario 64 1997
, Zelda: OoT 1998
), seems a necessary evil when removing the critic that is time.
Calling any game “perfect” though, really is a misnomer. History will ultimately judge the importance of a game based on its relative impact on the industry. For Mario and Zelda, both games are recognised for their technological leaps, scope and vision, pace and narrative, and ultimately their uniqueness in design and competence in 3D transition. It is clear now, however, some 10 years or more on - while amazing titles in their own right
- neither game is the visual epitome of perfect, nor utterly representative of the social element of gaming. They each share an amazingly creative and ardent soundtrack, but even at the time of release the tech behind their scores was considered archaic (for being MIDI based). And so, for all their 3D explorative/platforming glory, Mario 64 and Zelda: OoT were still far and away from an ultimate leap in technology. In short, both games are now seen as products of their time.
What this tells us then is, no matter how poignant a game is in the design department, unless the technology can perfectly reflect the sum of its gameplay parts, it will never
be perfect. With Mario and Zelda this statement is equally true, but with GTA IV it's truer
Like the aforementioned games, GTA IV comes *close
* to perfection. Subjectively, it’s a matter of time and placement, really. At the end of the day the amount of time and effort injected into every facet of all of GTA IV’s features could be considered “perfect”, but like so many “perfect” field representations, it’s still going to be looked at as a product of its time. This is truer most on the tech side of things. For a moment, let’s forget the brilliant scripting, do away with the overtly tongue-in-cheek radio, television and advertising social commentary. Let’s ignore the game’s scope in geometry and freedom, we’ll overlook the near-perfect city planning and deliberate visual design inconsistencies for added realism, and break the game down to its two most fundamental parts: Narrative and choice.
Stripping all aesthetics away reveals GTA IV is actually two games trying to work as one. On the one hand you have a stunningly crafted gangster story with scripting worthy of a Scorsese thumbs up. 10 minute-or-less missions linking together story arcs are manageable and engaging enough the game’s flow, uninterrupted, will keep you glued to your PS3 or Xbox 360 for hours upon hours on-end. On the other hand you have an amazingly open world to play with. You can steal practically anything that moves and punch or shoot anyone who walks. You can date, eat, shop, dress and drink your way through town. Want to hang out with friends? Why not play darts, shoot pool, hit some pins, and take in a show (or lap dance)? Don’t care about your social status? You can always just play an arcade machine, deliver packages, taxi people around, hunt crooks, rescue people, pull people over, run
people over. Hell, you can
even take to the skies like some virtual demigod - the possibilities are seemingly
Communicating with other characters in Liberty City is done through a handy mobile phone given to you by your cousin Roman early on in the game. Once you have it, the phone can be used to arrange dates, meetings or jobs as well as receive mission data. You can also manually dial numbers like 911 to call for police, fire or ambulance or just find random numbers in the game-world to see what they do. It's also a way in which the story is expanded without the need for cut-scenes. The more you raise your status, the more advanced your phones will become.
Further to this, GTA IV also has a robust virtual online feature where you visit internet cafes to check emails, peruse dating sites (where any girls or guys you're interested in might go on a date with you) and read satirical articles and advertisements. You can even 'download' ringtones and themes to your more advanced phones, fleshing out the real-world parallels in-game.
". See, here in lies the rub, and it’s where we realise technology just isn’t ready for what GTA IV wants to do. There is an underlying theme throughout the game that has you caring about every action you make. Your status with your girlfriend[s] is ingrained upon you early on – keep her happy or you’ll lose her. The same can be said of friends, like your cousin Roman. You need to keep him happy so you can get your free rides and the like, and on the surface this is a pretty cool thing. However, as far as the main arc goes, that is, the game’s single backbone story, nothing you ultimately do will change how it all plays out. There are a few decisions you can make here or there that will offer a slightly altered path, but nothing overly drastic. So the question is, what’s the point in having such a robust game-world if nothing you do in it is definitively dynamic? Sure it’s cool to be driving with a friend in the car, listening to them dynamically react to your actions in the game-world, but it won’t alter their place in the overall narrative. And the few things that do change aren’t nearly drastic or dynamic enough to warrant a marriage certificate between the two gameplay styles (it's more of a de facto
You could argue then GTA IV is a game that doesn’t tie you to, or scold you for, every action you make in the game, but instead rewards you with a break from following the story with its sandbox tools and open-world play. Indeed, I’ve more often than not found myself straying from the game’s story in favour of trying to do things like swim to the Statue of Happiness from the borough of Bohan or find all of the not-so-subtly placed or positioned jumps for that super stylish Dukes of Hazard slow-motion shot. I’ve spent a solid hour seeing how far I can drive a boat onto land and even longer attempting to blow up a pile of well placed cars (stolen and parked by me) with grenades or Molotov cocktails. I’ve even picked up my girlfriend in a semi-trailer just to see what she would say (it was “is this a new car?” for your information). But the end result is the same. All that happens in the end is I get arrested, lose my weapons and some cash and the world keeps on turning, just as it was programmed to do.
Whichever way you look at it, both elements of the game are fun; be it following the plight of off-the-boat European immigrant, Niko Bellic, and his rise to power, or driving across all four boroughs as you listen to the decidedly open satire condemning America’s ridiculously sacred republican and ultra conservative views. But at no point do either of these play styles ever truly
get along, and in that sense, until the technology (or time allotted to) comes along, the GTA series will always remain a game where one side’s pasture is greener than the other.
That said, I’m not condemning the game. I’ve had as much fun with GTA IV as I’ve had with any of the top releases of last year. But it’s by no means an absolutely pinnacle game the industry will remember as landscape-shifting. It’s an update, plain and simple. Rockstar have done what Rockstar does (and knows) best. It’s by far the best the series has seen to be sure, but much of this is due largely to the development team’s experience with the title, new technologies and bigger budgets.
But with a bigger budget, more experience, better technology and a new [gaming] generation, this latest GTA outing really is worth more than a look at. The story alone is one of the most competently directed and well scripted pieces of art I’ve come across in my many years of gangster film and literature love. This is equally helped by an unbelievable cast of voice-actors (some famous, most not) who get inside each of the characters’ heads. Roman, Niko’s cousin is a tortured, somewhat innocent soul – like a child full of wonderment, hanging on to that ridiculous idea of the “American Dream”, he represents a sense of hope throughout an otherwise bleak game-world. Even through adversity he finds the silver-lining in things, and as you progress through the story, you can’t help but feel warm he’s related to your extended self, Niko Bellic.
Little Jacob, on the other hand, is that breed of character you feel immediately comfortable with. I feel your relationship with him, above all other relationships in the game, is the most genuine through its well-paced and balanced ascent to respect and adoration. Eventually you’ll likely feel more comfortable spending all your social time with him, even if it is difficult to understand everything he says. For me, the connection with little Jacob is, dare I say, borderline true friendship (it’s kind of weird, because he’s not real
A hallmark of the Grand Theft Auto franchise has always been the incredibly well-scripted talkback radio, and in GTA IV it's as hilariously satirical as ever. You'll hear all the misogynistic, racially charged tongue-in-cheek right-wing rants you could hope for and would expect from Rockstar. There are countless music stations also with voice talent like Iggy Pop
and Juliette Lewis
among others (the hip hop station is even mixed by legendary DJ Premier
of Gang Starr fame). There's also plenty of television to watch with cartoons (look out for the super funny Republican Space Rangers
), sports programs and a show featuring Ricky Gervaise
It’s building relationships like the one with Little Jacob that opens this GTA up so much more than previous iterations of the series. Here you really care about the background characters, and despite the lack of truly dynamic, ever-changing associations, you’ll often find yourself at a bowling alley, pool hall or strip club, keeping them happy. What’s unfortunate about all of this though, is Niko rarely changes through any of this. Off the boat, he’s exactly what he’s going to be at the end. The only changes are aesthetic. As you progress you’ll get better weapons and new clothes, but his abilities and demeanour are the same from start to finish. This is one of the areas of the game I really feel Rockstar should look at. I understand they want to avoid looking like too many other games, but it couldn’t hurt to invest some time in a skill-tree, XP or gained ability system. Dynamically linking something like this with the new relationship building element could have an awesome upshot; offering far more incentive to invest the time in, well, spending time
with GTA IV’s shady, loyal, obnoxious, endearing, questionable, funny, loving characters.
Part of the new-look and feel GTA is some of the technology the game has behind it, the most important of which is the Euphoria animation system. I’ve mentioned this in my many write-ups prior to the game’s release, but for those who missed it, Euphoria is a new technology that throws away any need for canned animations, replacing them instead with real-life movement. Basically, instead of ‘animating’ a character’s descent down a set of stairs, for example, said character is imbued with Euphoria, a virtual skeletal structure, that dictates – based on speed, angle, the stairs, etc – how the character’s body will react. So, walking down the stairs slowly will have the character’s body jarring naturally with each step, running down them will see them turning sideways to maintain speed with less chance of falling and hurting themselves; each and every step reacting to the stairs based on speed and the like, in an eerily realistic fashion.
The new system is in place everywhere in the game, but you’ll likely notice it most in cars. Hitting the brakes hard, parts of the environment (like a wall) or other vehicles will see characters awkwardly jarred forward, raising hands toward the dash for self-preservation or utterly thrown about. You can even speed toward a wall or fence and hit it hard enough Niko will come flying through the windshield in the most realistic fashion ever seen you’d think car companies everywhere would be looking at replacing crash-test dummies in favour of virtual ones, it’s that incredible.
In conjunction with Euphoria (which so far has only been licensed for use to Rockstar for GTA IV and LucasArts for their forthcoming Star Wars: The Force Unleashed), Rockstar North have once again used the proprietary Rage Engine to create the robust world of Liberty City, and with the power of the next-gen systems it looks amazing. It’s not perfect, with plenty of pop-up, some aliasing issues and slow texture loads, but given the scope and size of the game-world, in concurrence with its stunning art-direction, you can’t help but be impressed. Cars are modelled incredibly well with enough variance throughout you rarely see the same build twice. Moreover, the damage model this time around is far deeper; each and every ding, broken head or tail light, or flat tyre looks and feels real
. They [Rockstar North] have really done an unbelievable job.
Again, however, this is one of the biggest issues with the game. Rockstar have done such an amazing job of creating a realistic, liveable, loveable city, its juxtaposition to linear-esque story-telling seems almost fruitless. I love utilising the game-world as I see fit, but it would be so much more compelling to have everything I do in the game-world reflected in the overall narrative, and here that’s simply not the case.
Aside from the two
gameplay elements (story, free-play), you can also hit up the most stout multiplayer Rockstar have crafted yet. Having spent so much time with the single-player game though, I handed over multiplayer duties to my AusGamers partner in crime, Dan, for his thoughts. Dan…
- A story of one Dan and his journey through Liberty City’s multiplayer playground.
Words and experience by Dan
Discounting the shared-screen antics of San Andreas, and the low-key PlayStation Portable offerings, Grand Theft Auto IV is the first game in the series to really offer a fully fledged multiplayer component – a feature so sought after that community modders actually took it upon themselves to hack it on
to previous versions.
In an effort to maintain the seamless immersion of the single-player portion, multiplayer is accessed via the in-game phone. A feature that while well intentioned, can be rather annoying if the only reason you're loading the game is to jump online. Especially considering it still requires a loading screen anyway.
Additionally, uncustomisable matchmaking makes tailoring a game to play with a larger group of friends, or even just people in the same country, a frustrating and futile exercise. Fortunately, for Xbox Live at least, the invite system makes playing with smaller numbers of friends manageable enough but there's definitely plenty of room for improvement. Here's hoping for some post-release patch loving.
With that out of the way, make no mistake; Grand Theft Auto IV multiplayer is ridiculously awesome. The gameplay potential is just so enormous that once you get in and playing, it's easy to forget the aforementioned inadequacies.
A variety of multiplayer modes cater to several tastes and range from using only a small section of one island, to the whole of Liberty City, all configurable by the host player.
- Race: Beat your opponents to the finish-line.
- GTA Race: Beat your opponents to the finish line, with guns.
- Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch: Just your standard adversarial affair.
- Mafiya Work and Team Mafiya Work: Travel the city completing generic GTA tasks and prevent your opponents from doing theirs.
- Car Jack City and Team Car Jack City: Steal the most cars and make the most cash; Turf War: Capture and hold points for your team.
- Cops n Crooks: Crooks have to make it across town to the getaway vehicle, cops have to waste the crooks.
- Three cooperative missions: Hangman's Noose, Bomb Da Base 2 and Deal Breaker let you play with others in specially tailored game missions, complete with their own intro cut-scene.
- and finally, Free Mode: Do whatever you want sandbox style, respawn as many times as you like, repeat until bored.
Scoring in all modes is handled in cold hard cash with the dollar amounts you win each round going towards your overall total and player ranking. Each new rank unlocks more clothing and appearance options allowing you to customise the look of your multiplayer avatar.
That's about the extent of progression though (other than Xbox Live Achievements of course), there's nothing that gives persistent players an unfair advantage over newcomers as seems to be the trend with popular multiplayer games lately.
Network functionality can be a little sketchy with AI traffic and cars glitching occasionally and the frame-rates often suffer more so than single-player. But these things that might completely sour another game's multiplayer experience seem to just not be a huge deal when playing here, because hey, it's multiplayer GTA
. Play a few rounds of Cops n Crooks
and see if you don't find yourself saying “just one more game”.
Life In Liberty City
- Conclusion to a game-world never-ending.
Fans of the series will no doubt be living it up in Liberty City already. Anyone who had issues with GTA III: San Andreas or any of the previous titles should know Rockstar have addressed almost everything here. Combat is much improved thanks to the new cover system that takes advantage of blind-firing, free-aim and quick jumps between locked targets. Headshots are instant death, rewarding patient players waiting for that clean shot, while enemy AI will definitely keep you on your toes. It’s not as good as it could
be, but combat isn’t the only facet of Niko’s life.
The new social element is as compelling as chasing the game’s intricate plot and you’ll find yourself enveloped in chasing woman, making friends or just hanging out through its gripping nature. But it can also feel somewhat arbitrary if all you need to do to keep your girlfriend happy and putting out is take her to a Cluckin’ Bell
. To this end, the experience is going to come down to personal preference – are you a story chaser? The sort of person who starts the plot and never let’s up to the very end. Or a gameplay junkie? Someone who tests the machinations of every facet of the game-world.
History will judge whether or not GTA IV is as groundbreaking as your Marios or Zeldas. Right now, I’m not so convinced. In the end though, it’s really very easy to get lost in this game. There is so much to love here, regardless of my views or the views of others; you could spend days or even years in Liberty City there’s just so much to do. It’s true we’re a ways off from having a definitively dynamic game-world; one where each and every action you make will affect, for good or bad, your overall experience (which is what I’m holding out for most), but for now, the term “sandbox” has found its benchmark in Grand Theft Auto IV.